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The Ups and Downs of Using Fracking Techniques: More Energy, But Extra Environmental Issues

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Hydraulic Fracturing, better known as fracking, has become the center for a much larger debate regarding land use, water, energy independence, and capitalism. Fracking has been upsetting for a lot of people, but also has made a few individuals a lot of money. In order to understand a practice that has become widespread across Texas and is rapidly expanding to the rest of the world we must examine the forces at play behind the fracking process and the resources involved. There are also some blurred lines between the public and the oil and gas companies that are so anxious to extract energy resources regarding public health and safety and environmental damages. Water has also become major issue surrounding the fracking debate.

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There are three resources that the world has the challenge of providing in order to support the growing number of human inhabitants; water, food and energy. It just so happens that the process to obtain food uses a lot of water and the process to obtain some forms of energy, especially natural gas from fracking, use a large amount of water as well. Water determines how we live and where we live. The treatment of our precious freshwater resources will determine if we can continue to live this way. Contaminating large amounts of water to extract natural gas from the ground may soon prove to be a reprehensible, catastrophic mistake. There are cleaner and safer ways to obtain energy that make more sense moving forward. Unfortunately the fracking boom that has taken the United States by storm in recent year, Texas Especially, is caused more by comfortable connections between oil and gas companies and capital hill than economic incentive.

Energy is our lifeblood. It keeps our economy moving, makes sure our streets are well lit, and our homes are at a comfortable temperature. It helps cook out food and keep our water cold. We need energy in order to keep our modern society going. There is no argument there. But finding the best method or source for energy to power our world is still up for debate. Some forms of energy are more risky like nuclear, some are more environmentally harmful, and some carry a higher carbon footprint than others. Historically the most readily accessible forms of energy, and subsequently the cheapest form, have been fossil fuels including coal, oil, and natural gas.“Conventionally drilled wells tap easy to-get-at pockets of natural gas. Such gas heats homes and offices, fuels vehicles and generates electricity. But as easily accessible reserves have been used up, countries seeking a steady supply of domestic energy have turned to natural gas buried in difficult-to-reach places, such as deep layers of shale” (Ehrenberg 21). These easy to access sources have been used up in the last century and now we are tapping into harder to reach areas for more of the same energy.

All oil and natural gas fossil fuels are formed in a three-step process. All fossil fuels begin as organic matter that was once a living plant or animal hundreds of millions of years ago. Most of the oil and natural gas come from microorganisms living in water that were later buried under layers of sediment. As the organic material gets buried it becomes cooked into a hydrocarbon called kerogn. This process is known as Diagenesis. As the depth of burial increases, so does the temperature and pressure the kerogen is exposed to. During a process called catagenesis the formation of the natural gas and oil begins. The window for this formation is between 3.5 kilometers depth and between ninety and a hundred fifty degrees centigrade. Chemical reactions caused by increased pressure and temperature promote a decrease in the molecular complexity of hydrocarbons, which in turn decreases viscosity until only the simplest molecular structure is left, creating methane. This final disintegration of kerogen into methane is called metagenesis. The natural gas that is trapped in the oil shale that is the target of fracking is mostly impermeable which has left the natural gas trapped inside. The process to create the natural gas and oil has taken millions of years and now The production of these resources on a geologic time scale is why we have labeled fossil fuels a non-renewable resource. Humans have been taking part in the unsustainable practice of extracting these hydrocarbons and are on pace to exhaust these resources in few hundred years. A recent boom in hydraulic fracturing is our latest ploy to continue this unsustainable practice.

Here are some facts to get you up to date on the fracking debate. Each well needs on average 400 tanker trucks to carry water and other chemicals to and from the site. 1-8 million gallons of water are needed for each fracking job. 90 percent of the fracking fluid is water and 9 percent is sand or glass with the remaining 1% being a mix of different unknown chemicals. 40,000 gallons of chemicals are mixed with the water. Of these potential 600 different chemicals used in fracking fluid some are known carcinogens such as Lead, Uranium, Mercury, Ethylene Glycol, Radium, Methanol, Hydrochloric acid, Formaldehyde. An estimated 72 trillion gallons of water are needed to run our current 500,000 gas wells in the U.S. Currently nine out over every ten onshore wells in the United States (Ehrenberg 20).

The process of drill and hydraulic fracturing begins with the construction of a drill pad (which has its own environmental impact). Then a well is drilled straight down into to targeted bedrock or shale. During this process the well is being drilled through the water table and aquifers where groundwater that might be used for drinking is stored. Once the lower bound of the aquifer is reached the drill is taken out and cement is pumped into the well in order to create a barrier between the well and the groundwater. After sealing the well with cement the drillers then begin a process called ‘kicking off’ which starts the horizontal drilling process. “Combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling offers a way to wrest gas from these untapped reserves. By drilling sideways into a rock formation and then sending cracks sprawling though the rock, methane can burble into a well from a much larger area” (Ehrenberg 21). After drilling the L-shaped well into the ground the far end is sealed off with an explosion and the fracking process can begin. Two steps initiate the actual fracturing of the shale: plugging and initiation of new fracture by a perforation gun and the injection of the high-pressured fracking fluids. The perforation gun actually fractures the shale with a series of small explosions that send shockwaves through the rock surrounding the horizontal well to open up pathways for the natural gas to be extracted. “Millions of gallons of fracking fluid – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals – are pumped into the well at pressures high enough to fracture the shale. Methane within the shale diffuses into these fissures and flows up the well“(Ehrenberg 21). The sand is permeable and fills in the fractures, holding them open allowing the natural gas to escape and flow up through the well back to the surface where is captured and fed into an infrastructure of pipelines.

The hydraulic fracturing process was developed and patented in 1949 by the Pan American Oil Company. Halliburton, anotheroil and gas company has held a non-exclusive right to the patent since 1953. The process of fracking was simply too expensive because back in the 1950 we hadn’t exhausted all of the easy to find oil. So Halliburton held onto this right and watched gas prices rise for decades until their fracking technology became much more valuable. The most recent Fracking boom began domestically in 2005 after the Energy Policy Act was passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush on August 8th. This bill was supposed to beckon new energy development domestically and help reduce our reliance on foreign oil. This bill also unfortunately deregulated many oil and gas companies and essentially exempted the fluid and various chemicals used in the fracking process from the requirements of the Clean Air Act, Clean water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act). This bill created a loophole exempts companies that are drilling for natural gas from disclosing the chemical used in their fracking fluid. The disclosure of these chemicals would normally be expected under the laws listed above. This loophole known as the ‘Halliburton loophole’ because after the bill was signed into law Halliburton had unregulated reign to begin fracking all over the nation. A large proponent of the loophole was then, Vice President Dick Cheney who was a former CEO of Halliburton and was still on the payroll after the bill was passed. The Oil and Gas Industry also paid large sums of money in order to get the Bush-Cheney party elected and reelected (Dorner 2010).This brings into question whether or not our political system is really in the hands of the people or huge multinational corporations with deep pockets. Congressmen who know that the oil and gas companies are employing a lot of people in their congressional district aren’t afraid to stick up for the companies that also happen to provide a large chunk of their campaign funding.

The federal government, and mainly the EPA have been slow to respond to potential dangers that fracking has posed by being exempt to the Clean Drinking Water Act and other environmental regulation. Recently legislation has been bought up in congress to address the growing concern over the lack of transparency between the public and the oil and gas companies regarding the harmful chemicals that might be used in the extraction process. “The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, the so-called―FRAC Act, was re-proposed in 2013,which would require operators to disclose the chemicals used in fracking and would allow the EPA to regulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act” (Negro 729). This act has failed to pass in Congress and similar acts have trailed to gain much traction in the political sphere. If the FRAC act or a similar bill were to pass in congress it would bring immediate change to the way that fracking and natural gas operations are monitored at the state level.. Currently “the EPA is undergoing a study on impacts of fracking on drinking water and expects to release a draft report in 2014, and expects to finalize the report in 2016”(Negro 737). This report could lead to some changes in water policy surrounding fracking depending on the finding of the report. The recent spending bill by congress that plans to cut the budget of the EPA by $60 million wont help the EPA in it’s already difficult job of protecting the environment from contamination and destruction by American industry.

The extent of the development and regulation of the fracking industry has largely been left up to the laws of the states. In Texas, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is in charge of regulating the oil and gas industry, and natural gas drilling including hydraulic fracturing and the production and delivery of natural resources. However, the municipalities have the authority to determine where drilling will occur with zone ordinances and land use permits (Negro 730). With the permits and the purchase of the mineral rights form a landowner oil companies have free reign fracture to their hearts desire.

The scope of the amount of energy that we are dealing with in the fracking debate is huge. There is still an estimated “…72 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of potentially accessible natural gas enough to last 110 years, based on 2009 rates of consumption” (Entrekin et al. 503) in the US. There is a lot at stake in this debate, including energy independence from oil exporting countries. We are becoming energy independent but at a very high cost. It is unclear why we have placed such a high priority on becoming energy independent. We are dependent on many other countries to produce food and many other goods. This is where we need to reexamine some of the values that we have as a nation and our cultural beliefs. For a country that prides itself on welcoming globalization and a free open market, we sure don’t like paying someone else a lot of money for the oil to power our cars. In order to bring some clarity to this debate remember that the fracking wells are not pumping out the black gold(crude oil) that can be refined to power our cars. This boom is in natural gas production. Natural gas is made up of mostly methane and other hydrocarbons. Yes, natural gas can be used stovetop to cook, warm the water in our water heaters and even heat or cool houses and buildings same as any other source of electricity. Only recently however has there been the development of natural gas powered cars. However these cars are mostly prototypes and have yet to gain popularity on the American roads. At this point natural gas powered cars are less popular than electric vehicles. The fuel that is powering the four hundred tanker trucks bringing the water and chemicals to the frack pad is likely powered by oil from the other countries. America can only produce forty percent of the crude oil that it consumes and the increasing amount of fracking wont change that. If America wants to end its independence on foreign oil then there needs to be a fleet of new vehicles developed that doesn’t depend on importing the crude oil found in the Middle East.

It is established that the process of hydraulic fracturing is able to extract large amounts of natural gas that is trapped in underground oil shale and provide an abundance of energy for many people. But, we often forget about the other resource that we are exchanging for the right to this energy: water. “The fracking process, however, requireshuge amounts of water, in essence trading one resource for another” (Negro 725). Despite the potential economic benefitsfrom fracking an inescapable reality is that massive amounts of fresh water are needed to extract this resource. And once this water is used in the drilling and fracturing process it cannot be used again. Some of the water is trapped underground in the well and what is extracted has to be treated as hazardous waste. This water that comes back out of the well is called ‘flowback’ and “…may containelements of the chemicals added to the fracking fluid or hazardouschemicals from below the earth‘s surface” (Negro 728). The flowback contains water from the bowels of the Earth. This flowback water typically has a lot of salt, along with naturally occurring radioactive material, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals. The ‘flowback’ water is not able to be processed by traditional municipal waste treatment plants. The resulting treatment of the water is storing it in an underground disposal well, an above ground pit, or dumping the waste into a nearby body of water or forest. Storing in open-air pits can release dangerous chemical fumes that can lead to acid rain. Of course, dumping the water is illegal, but poor environmental regulations have made this a viable option for some oil companies to roll the dice on polluting rivers and streams. “InPennsylvania alone, there were morethan 1400 drilling violations betweenJanuary 2008 and October 2010. Of these, nearly halfdealt with surface-contamination” (Entrkin et al 506). If they get caught they pay the fine. The fine is usually less than what an oil and gas company would have to pay for treating or recycling the ‘flowback’ water the proper way at a facility capable of processing hazardous chemical water. The water that is used for fracking isn’t water that should not be dumped downstream the fracking fluid is on par with toxic waste.

There have been questions surrounding what the companies are actually using in their fracking fluids and how toxic these chemicals are. After hiding the contents of the chemicals used in the fracking process until recently as some states have decided to require disclosure. These states include: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana,Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio,Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming (Negro 738). “A report released by theHouse Energy and Commerce Committee in 2011 helped to shed some light on the chemical contents of the fracking fluid. They found that “14 major gas and oilcompanies used 750 different chemicals in their fracking fluids. Twenty-five ofthese chemicals are listed as hazardouspollutants under the Clean Air Act, nineare regulated under the Safe DrinkingWater Act and 14 are known or possiblehuman carcinogens, including naphthaleneand benzene.” Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the oil and gas companies are still exempt from these laws.

Much debate has been placed over whether or not the process of fracking allows methane to be released into the groundwater. There have been multiple reports of methane and other chemicals contaminating the drinking water wells of residents’ around fracking areas. These residents have reported getting sick from drinking this contaminated water and a few individuals, including Terry Greenwood of Pennsylvania, have passed away from rare forms of brain cancer likely cause by the carcinogens in the fracking mixture. In rare cases residents have being able to light their water on fire or methane build up in basements have caused explosions. Since methane is a clear, colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas that dissolves in water, is extremely difficult to detect when it contaminates a groundwater supply. The only reliable way to remove methane from water is through aeration. Possible ways that the groundwater could be contaminated are through the fracking wastewater not being disposed of properly at the surface, the cement well casing cracking under the high pressure or natural gas leaking towards the surface after the fracturing releases it from the shale. Whatever the causes of these leaks are the evidence is inconclusive and there is a need more studies done in order to protect the environment and the health of individuals around fracking wells.

One if the more alarming part of this debate is where the water used for fracking comes from and where the fracking is happening. A new study produced by the World Resources Institute has shown that 38% of shale resources are located in areas that are extremely arid and under high to extreme levels of water stress (National Geographic 2014). Another study has also shed some light on the availability of water in the areas where fracking is occurring. “Recent reports from Ceres, a nonprofit organization in the field of water scarcity and climate change, show that almost half of fracking wells in the United States are located in water basins with high to extreme water stress” (Negro 732-33). Areas withhigh to extreme water stress are classified as having at least 40- 80% of the available water already in use for municipal, industrial and, agricultural purposes. Additionally the report found that 56% of wells are in areas that are facing drought restriction. Texas is one of those areas that have wells in areas under drought conditions. Oil companies cannot justify drilling a well and using, on average, fifteen acre-feet of water per well in an area facing drought restrictions.

In south Texas, just fifty miles south of San Antonio oil and gas companies are relentlessly going after the natural gas and oil trapped in the Eagle Ford shale. “From January 2011 through May 2013, hydraulic fracturing producers in the Eagle Ford used about 19 billion gallons of water for 4,300-plus wells, the highest water use of any shale basin in the country” (National Geographic 2014). The full extent of the impact of fracking can be felt in the surrounding communities. They are experiencing the ‘economic boom’ that so many proponents of fracking mention when talking about the benefits increased fracking. Most of the estimated $50 billion invested in extracting the gas in the Eagle Ford is going to the individuals who have either leased their minerals rights or groundwater rights to the oil companies. In Texas there is no restrictions regarding the use of water in fracking. The State of Texas has a ‘rule of capture’ law stating that allows any property owner to pump as much groundwater as they want for any purpose. Even if this water withdrawal might impact a neighbor’s ability to access their water. This creates a tragedy of the commons problem where all of the landowners are looking to benefit from the pumping of their groundwater from a shared resource: the underground aquifers. “In every town, you hear about the region’s unrelenting drought and aggressive measures ‘frackers’ are using to acquire critical freshwater for their wells” (National Geographic 2014).

The companies will do whatever they can to get their hands on some useable water, regardless of the drought conditions in the area.

The fracking industry and the big oil and gas companies in the Eagle Ford Shale, Anadarko, EOG, Chesapeake, and Halliburton, have the moral obligation to further develop technologies to help recycle the fracking water. If they fail to work together and develop more sustainable ways to use water the country will be left with depleted and contaminated aquifers that won’t be useful to anyone. Methods are being developed to help recycle the water and even use brackish (salty) water for fracking. The Texas Railroad Commission recently adopted, in 2013, new rules to encourage recycling of wastewater. Under the new regulations, drilling operators do not need a permit to recycle water on land that they are leasing, including directly on well sites, or to transfer fluids to another operator‘s lease to be recycled.126 Operators can store fluids that are awaiting recycling, or treated fluids, on site in recycling pits that meet certain criteria” (Negro 742). If we examine the fracking issue by the numbers each well in the Eagle Ford costs about $7.5 million to drill and frack. Halliburton reported saving up to $400,000 per well by recycling the fracking water and fluid. Recycling the water saves on the cost of the new water and the cost of the hundreds of truckloads needed to haul the water. The new recycling provisions signal that the recycling of water is economically viable for the oil companies and that they are financially incentivized to do so. This is a rare case where an environmental argument makes sense to a stockholder.

Changes to policies involving fracking and water use have to start in a state legislature or in congress. Unfortunately as previously mentioned the oil and gas companies are the puppeteers and the politicians are their puppets. Water use and fracking development remains widespread throughout Texas and there doesn’t seem to be anything or anyone that will stop the continued development of fracking in Texas, the U.S. and around the world.Increased transparency from the oil companies and better water governance by local, state and the federal government is needed to manage fracking and its water usage. “Without foresight, advance planning, and engagement with affected communities, such a rise in localized demand could create serious tensions between farmers, cities and energy producers, if not outright water shortages” (National Geographic 2014).The world needs energy and natural gas is cleaner burning than many other fossil fuels, but understanding that the same people that are buying the energy also need clean water to drink. This must be realized before all of the drinkable water is used up and we are left with pools of toxic fracking wastewater oozing chemicals we would rather not know about. The line has to be drawn somewhere as we have to maintain a balance between energy production and clean water in order for the world to continue to be a prosperous and hospitable place for human civilization.

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